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As We Say Goodbye to Neil Armstrong, Should We Also Let Go of Our Space Fantasies?


The death of astronaut Neil Armstrong arouses memories and mixed emotions.

In the summer of 1969, my family and I spent a month on Nantucket Island, off the coast of Massachusetts. Our cottage lacked a television, so on the night of July 20 we walked to the house of a neighbor. I lay on the floor of the crowded living room, my head propped up on a pillow, and watched a flickering, black-and-white image of Armstrong stepping off the Eagle module and onto the Moon. I remember thinking, if not saying, Science fiction is coming true! Next stop Mars! Stars! Galaxies!

I was a sci-fi junkie then, addicted to books like Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles and Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, films like Forbidden Planet and 2001: A Space Odyssey; and of course the television series Star Trek, which Captain James T. Kirk introduced every week by intoning, "Space, the final frontier." Space was the outward projection of our inner dream world, where we encountered alien realms and beings that embodied our deepest fears and most sublime aspirations.

In the early 1980's, when I began my career as a science journalist, I still believed that space represented our destiny. I wrote an admiring article about Gerard O'Neill, a Princeton physicist who designed huge cylindrical spacecraft in which humans would dwell in geosynchronous orbit. I thrilled to the prediction of another visionary physicist, Freeman Dyson, that our bionically enhanced descendants would fan out through the cosmos colonizing other solar systems and galaxies.

Gradually, my space dreams faded. President Ronald Reagan's plan to build a space-based defense against Russian nuclear missiles made me wonder whether our space program had always been mere Cold War saber-rattling. President John Kennedy had initiated the Apollo program, after all, in response to the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957.

After the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle on January 28, 1986, NASA's manned-flight programs seemed increasingly risky, expensive and pointless. Moreover, doing a story on astronomers' search for planets beyond our solar system, I came across a dispiriting calculation: a spacecraft traveling one million miles per hour, 20 times faster than any current spacecraft, would take 3,000 years to reach Alpha Centauri, our nearest stellar neighbor. Barring the invention of faster-than-light warp-drive transport, which the theory of special relativity seems to rule out, or of methods for overcoming senescence, humans will probably never leave the solar system, let alone the Milky Way.

Even before the recent recession, I began questioning the morality of taxpayer-funded manned-space programs. Early in his tenure Barack Obama paid lip service to the goals of returning to the moon and visiting Mars, but Obama didn't give NASA nearly enough money to achieve these goals in the foreseeable future. Nor should he have. How can we justify costly missions in space when so many people here on earth lack adequate health care, housing, education and other necessities? Given all our terrestrial troubles, our infatuation with space seems more than ever like escapism.

And yet, I still love space-oriented sci-fi films, whether they are scary-grim, like Prometheus, the prequel to the Alien flicks, or cheesy-fun, like the Star Trek films. A couple of years ago I happily watched the entire Battlestar Galactica series (of which I'm reminded whenever I hear the word "fracking"). I'm thrilled by the success of the Mars rover Curiosity, and I wish entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk all the best as they try to create a private space-travel industry. Some day, maybe, my kids, or their kids, will get to walk on the Moon, like Neil Armstrong, or look down at Earth from an orbiting space hotel. Some dreams are worth holding on to, even if we're not sure that they will—or should--come true.

Note: This post is adapted from an essay originally published in BBC Knowledge Magazine.

Image: Premier Inn.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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